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Area experts take hard stance on e-cigarettes

Medical professionals all over the nation, including many locally, are becoming active against an alarming e-cigarette and vaping craze among high school and middle school students. Since 2014, based on data provided by the Department of Health, e-cigs have become the most common tobacco product of use amongst 12 to 20 year olds.

More specifically, amongst school-aged adolescents, a survey conducted by the Department of Health showed that 1 in 5 high school students and 1 in 20 middle school students have used e-cigs in 2018.

With a new form of addiction pushing its way into the lives of teenagers and young adults, lung specialists and pediatricians are stressing the extreme need for awareness of the epidemic in hopes to see a decrease in e-cig use amongst teens rather than the troubling and steady rise they’ve been observing.

Dr. Dana Smith, a pediatrician at Geisinger Lock Haven, is one such advocate wanting to see a decrease in use.

“I think that it needs to be focused on whether it be at wellness checks or even with parents,” Smith said. “When you’re talking about not drinking and driving or not smoking cigarettes, vaping needs to be addressed as well. We need to be advocates by going to politicians and working to decrease advertisements and working with the FDA by regulating what’s in the things because a lot of the chemicals aren’t regulated.”

Smith attributes the rise in e-cig usage amongst teens to their accessibility and the variety of flavors that conventional cigarettes don’t have.

“Typically, to buy cigarettes you have to be 18, sometimes older, and you need to provide an ID,” Smith said. “But with vaping, you can buy it online. (Kids can) use their parent’s credit card number or get access to a card and get it online. It is also very appealing for tweens and teenagers because of the flavoring. Peach flavor, pineapple, bubble gum, chocolate, other things. This leads them to think of it as candy and, therefore, safer.”

But experts agree that vaping is not safer. Smoking e-cigs causes different harmful effects than cigarettes.

Some smokers argue that switching to e-cigarettes in place of conventional smoking has helped them cut back or quit ‘smoking’ completely. But vaping is another issue, experts said.

Dr. Jaya Sugunaraj, a Geisinger pulmonologist, is not one of those buying into the false belief that e-cigarettes are better for those trying to quit smoking or even avoiding the harmful chemicals mixed in the nicotine.

“Once people get used to nictoine, it is very hard to get them off during their lifetime,” Sugunaraj said. “What we don’t have right now is the long-term data. There are studies on vaping however, and they are finding the same initial changes that we see in cigarette smoking. Damage to lungs is a big one. It can lead to actual cigarette smoking, but even other addictive drugs as well. They might not be in the position to know what’s good for them versus bad for them in the long run.”

In many ways, e-cigarettes have pushed their way into society and attached itself to the culture of today’s youth.

Having been introduced as mainstream tobacco alternative in 2007, vaping lacks a lot of research on how the effects of e-cigs compare to those of regular and conventional tobacco products.

“This is a new trend, so they have not observed enough people for the effects of e-cigs right now,” Sugunaraj said. “But again, this is the early phase where people are getting used to it and it may take a couple of months or years for them to have side effects. Experts may have one or two cases here or there, but again, you’re talking about 3.6 million youths who are getting used to this phenomenon. That is the reason we have to start early in bringing awareness to them before they have to come to us for help.”

Both Smith and Sugurnaj are huge advocates for community involvement and making teenagers aware of the health benefits of not usig e-cigs.

But one of the benefits is not just surrounding health, but finances. According to Smith, statistics show that it can cost up to $2,300 to purchase the equipment needed – money that can be used on going out with friends, buying new clothes or even saving up for a car.

Sugurnaraj specifically highlighted the effects a parent can have on their child’s use of tobacco products.

“I think the basic thing is that I would talk with the parents first,” Sugunaraj said. “What I would advise them to do is to not allow the electronic cigarettes or vaping in the house or car. Not use it in front of kids, and talk to them about the dangers of cigarettes and nicotine addiction instead. You know, kids learn based on what they see and what happens around them so leading with example of not using nicotine products is the best way to go.”

For parents who plan to speak with their teens, it is important to understand the facts about e-cigarettes and emphasize them without being critical.

Sugunaraj and the surgeon general’s advisory in the U.S. health department stress that a teenager’s developing brain in areas of attention, learning and memory skills can be deeply impacted negatively by nicotine abuse. The warnings also emphasize the risk of addiction and the possibility of that addiction leading to other harmful addictions including drug and alcohol.